By MACARENA HERNANDEZ

The Dallas Morning News

Drowning in post-protest talk, it would be tempting to give in to despair. The nationwide demonstrations brought visibility to the invisible but also hardened the opposition. Depending on whom you ask, they either helped or hurt the cause.

Some say the national boycott just fueled a backlash. What else would we expect after millions of people, many living here illegally, took to the streets to proclaim, “Look at us, we are America”?

Unfortunately, much of the protest message has been lost in translation. Just when it seemed that we had put the foreign-flag controversy behind us, “Nuestro Himno,” the British-produced Spanish version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” hit radio stations. President Bush sternly told reporters that our national anthem should be sung only in English.

Maybe the White House forgot that the U.S. Bureau of Education had the national anthem translated first into German back in the early 1900s, then Spanish and Yiddish. Or maybe they don’t realize that the State Department’s Web site lists four versions of the anthem in Spanish.

But I digress. You see how easy it is to get caught up in the talk of flags and Spanish-language anthems and lose track of the real issue: Is Congress serious enough about overhauling immigration to stop politicking and get down to business?

Since 9/11, there is no doubt that we have to address border security. But we also know that hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta entered the United States legally and that none of his fellow 9/11 terrorists crossed the Rio Grande to catch their planes.

So when we talk about protecting ourselves from the next attack, let’s move the debate beyond our southern border. Atta, not unlike as many as half of our 12 million illegal immigrants here, overstayed his visa.

Reaching consensus will be tough. Even among my siblings and mother, we don’t always agree. One of my brothers, who owns a construction company in Austin, Texas, has experienced firsthand the effects of depressed wages from illegal immigration. My mother, an immigrant, reminds us not to blame the desperate but their governments and the U.S. companies who hire them.

In Dallas, I’ve been bombarded with e-mails that repeat some variation of “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” I hear you.

But when the U.S. government turns a blind eye and doesn’t enforce its laws, it’s a bit tough to spread the blame evenly. Officials from the Government Accountability Office testified last year that 417 notices of intent to fine were issued in 1999 to employers who hired people here illegally.

By 2004, that number was three.

Frankly, even if Congress comes up with the perfect comprehensive immigration package, the fix will be temporary, as long as Mexico can’t offer at home what the U.S. is more than willing to give. In 2004, Mexicans were making about $1.86 an hour, while their fellow countrymen working in the United States were earning an average of $9, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report.

Just last week, The Dallas Morning News reported on Mexico’s middle-class exodus, spurred by an increase in violent crimes and the country’s anemic economy. When the largest wave of immigrants left in the ’90s, most of them poor, the government didn’t seem to notice. Now that it has become a middle-class brain drain, too, Mexico’s presidential candidates will take up the issue in their next debate.

No doubt, Latinos are more visible than ever. In the short run, many may see the protests as counterproductive, but this movement’s true success will be more accurately judged in the long run. As I watched coverage of the nationwide peaceful protests, with moving pictures of children and parents, I was reminded of what’s at stake for many who are here illegally. It’s family, a cultural institution that immigration has been gnawing at for years.

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